Being an autism parent is hard. It can cause stress, anxiety, the never ending burden of hyper-vigilance, and often depression. There is a level of chronic grief as well, as you mourn the loss of a particular dream and embrace a different life than you imagined.
I’ve experienced all of it and I’ve written about it on this blog. Many of you have reached out and reminded me that you, too, feel these things. You understand.
But this post isn’t about the stress, anxiety or grief. It’s crucial that we acknowledge the reality of those things, but if I sit down and thoughtfully analyze how autism has changed me, the negative parts don’t even make the top of the list.
Autism has been a life-changing experience for me and for our entire family. And I mean that in a positive way. I am a different woman than I would have been, and I’m a better person because of autism.
Were I to list all the lessons autism has taught me, there wouldn’t be enough space on the internet. But here are a few:
What I’ve Learned from Being an Autism Parent
1. Sympathy and compassion
Before I had a child with autism, I was judgmental and smug. I assumed poorly behaved children were always the result of bad parenting. I was determined never to allow disobedience or disrespect in my home.
I was the perfect mother before I had kids.
Boy was I in for a shock.
Autism opened my eyes to a whole new world. I learned that no matter how good your parenting skills, controlling your child’s every decision — especially when they are wired differently and have major sensory issues — is a pipe dream. No matter your method of discipline, there will be behavior issues.
In an air of superiority, I had lumped all the parents of poorly behaved kids together in the “bad parent” category. Now that I was struggling with behavior issues in my own home, I realized how wrong I had been. I learned to be sympathetic and compassionate rather than judgmental.
2. People are not their masks
Most of us spend our lives wearing masks. We’ve learned how to hide our emotions, our imperfections, our true selves, beneath protective masks of our own making. But people with disability don’t have the same privilege. Their imperfections are on display.
This can be especially challenging when dealing with a child like mine who has an invisible disability. His autism isn’t so evident to the casual onlooker, so for a while, I lived in denial that no one would ever have to know. I mistakenly believed that if I worked hard enough, I’d be able to cover it up.
I was so wrong. Because if you hang around my child long enough, you’ll see it. With many kids like mine, the odd and quirky behavior is the disability. And if you’re a person who’s always striven to hide your flaws, going out in public with an autistic child can be a cringe-worthy event.
So this was a huge learning milestone for me, and one I’m still working on.
The Bible says that people look at the outward appearance but God looks at the heart. Disability gives special needs parents a glimpse of the way God sees. We learn to look past physical differences and truly appreciate the person within — first with our own child, and then with others.
3. Happiness and gratitude in small things.
Autism parents don’t take for granted the smiles and hugs and “I love yous” of every day. Those seemingly small things become colossal. We are always on the lookout for the precious, tender moments, the tiny victories. We are primed to be ever mindful, to notice.
And when the moments come, they take our breath away.
Being a special needs parent takes gratitude to a whole new level.
4. Dependence on God
No matter how independent we profess to be, a diagnosis of autism makes us realize how little control we actually have. Autism really messed up my plans for a “perfect” life. But I can say without hesitation that I am thankful. It took something I really couldn’t handle on my own for me to finally release the reins and let God take control. How I desperately needed to drop the pretense and surrender my circumstances and my life to the One who could handle it!
This journey of autism is not an easy one. There are ups and downs and plenty of struggle. But I am thankful.
Because I have been changed for the better.
How has your journey with autism or another disability changed you? Want to share with me in the comments below? I love to hear your stories!
*An earlier version of this post originally appeared on Different Dream in February 2015.